Stories of Honest Yan Shu
(Minghui.org) Yan Shu was a poet, calligrapher, scholar and court official of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Since childhood, he was honest, upright and very intelligent.
Yan Shu was already able to write poetry as a 7-year-old, and was introduced to Emperor Zhenzong of Song (who reigned from 968-1022) at the age of 14 as a “child prodigy” by Zhang Zhibai, Governor of the Jiangnan region.
Yan Shu went to the capital city in 1005 to attend the imperial examination alongside more than 3,100 successful candidates from around the country.
Even though he had been granted the privilege of being interviewed by the Emperor without having to sit for the examination, he insisted on taking the exam along with others.
Yan Shu was very calm during the exam and answered the questions very well on the first day of the examinations. Emperor Zhenzong was very pleased with his performance and awarded him the title “Successful Candidate of the Highest Imperial Examination.”
On the second round of the examination the next day, when Yan Shu saw that the exam topic was identical to one he had worked on before, he asked the chief examiner to give him a new topic.
The examiner said to him, “It does not matter if you have worked on the topic before. Just write down your answer. We will assess your paper the same way. If I give you a new topic, you may fail if you cannot do well.”
Yan Shu replied, “If you do not give me a new topic, even if I pass the examination, it would not be done on my true merits. If I fail to do well with a new topic, it means that I'm still not good enough in learning. I won't have any regrets.” Hearing this, the examiner gave Yan Shu a new topic for the exam.
Yan Shu looked at the new topic and thought for a while. He then picked up the brush and finished his essay in one stretch. The chief examiner was very impressed with Yan Shu's talent and his quick mind, believing that he was truly a genius.
Yan Shu had asked for a new topic based on his sense of honesty. He did extremely well on the examination thanks to his talent and excellent scholarship. His conduct and integrity earned him high respect from others.
Soon, Emperor Zhenzong got wind of what had happened. He immediately summoned Yan Shu. “Not only do you have real talents, but more importantly, you have the fine quality of honesty and uprightness!” said the emperor.
The emperor admired Yan Shu very much and appointed him as a member of the Imperial Academy.
At that time, the dynasty was blessed with peace and prosperity. Officials in the capital city often took leisurely excursions into the suburbs or held banquets in restaurants or tea houses. Since Yan Shu came from a poor family, he did not have money to go out for entertainment like others. So he spent his spare time at home, reading and writing articles with his brothers.
One day, Emperor Zhenzong wanted to choose a teacher for his son Zhao Zhen, the crown prince. He did not ask his court officials for a recommendation, but personally appointed Yan Shu to the position. He said, “I heard that Yan Shu often stays home reading and writing instead of attending banquets. He is an honest and conscientious person, very appropriate to be around the crown prince.”
When Yan Shu went to thank the emperor for the appointment, he told the emperor, “It is not that I don't want to go on excursions or attend banquets, but because I'm from a poor family and I don't have money to do so. If I had money, I would have done the same.” Seeing that Yan Shu was so honest, the emperor trusted him even more.
Yan Shu's fine character and honesty were much appreciated by the emperor and the court officials alike. After the crown prince Zhao Zhen ascended the throne, Yan Shu was given even more important roles, right up to the position of Chancellor of the Court. Still, he remained honest and down to earth in his daily conduct and was deeply loved by the people.
Even though Yan Shu was a high-ranking official, he was always amiable and easy to approach. He recommended people with talent regardless of their backgrounds. Such people included Fan Zhongyan, Kong Daofu, Wang Anshi, and others. He also nurtured and helped many younger talented scholars, such as Han Qi, Fu Bi, Ouyang Xiu, and others. Yan Shu treated every student with honesty and sincerity.
Once, Yan Shu passed by the City of Yangzhou, a place known for its gardens and beautiful sceneries. He felt a bit tired while walking in the city with his servant, so they went into Daming Temple for a rest. As they entered the temple, he saw a lot of poems written on the wall.
Intrigued by what he saw, Yan Shu sat in a chair and asked his servant to read out the poems for him, but without revealing the names of the authors or their social status.
Yan Shu listened for a while and felt that one poem was particularly good. It was found to be written by Wang Qi.
Yan Shu sent the servant to invite Wang Qi for a meeting. Wang Qi came and they had a very pleasant chat. Yan Shu invited Wang Qi to stay for a meal. Afterwards, they went for a walk in the back garden.
It was in late spring, and the ground was covered with fallen petals. When a pleasant breeze blew through, petals floated in the air, creating a truly beautiful scene.
It reminded Yan Shu of something, so he said to Wang Qi, “Every time a verse appears in my mind, I write it down on a wall and think about the next one to follow. However, I am stuck on one verse and have not been able to come up with the next line for a few years now.”
“What is the verse if I may ask?” Wang Qing required.
Yan Shu recited, “Flowers will die, do what one may,”
“Why don't you have 'Swallows will return, as seeming acquaintances' as the next line?” Wang Qi suggested straight away, “It means that the weather has turned warm and swallows have returned from the south, as if they had met the year before.”
Yan Shu was very happy with the suggested line and kept saying, “Wonderful, wonderful, truly wonderful!”
Yan Shu liked the couplet so much that he later included the verses in one of his well-known poems “Huan Xi Sha.”
Yan Shu was very impressed with Wang Qi's literary talent and recommended him to the emperor after he returned to the capital city. Later, Wang Qi took on many important posts and performed them well.